By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2008
RICHMOND -- Many candidates for the Virginia General Assembly campaigned last year on a pledge to curb the state's illegal immigrant population. But two weeks into the legislative session, many of the more than 100 immigration-related bills that have been introduced go even further and could penalize those living in the country legally.
One bill would require that driver's license exams be conducted in English. Another would force people applying for a driver's license to show proof of U.S. citizenship. And several bills would declare English as Virginia's official language.
"Virginia's legislators claim that they only want to crack down on undocumented immigrants and that they welcome those immigrants who 'play by the rules.' That's what they say," said Tim Freilich, legal director for the Virginia Justice Center for Farm and Immigrant Workers. "Then they turn around and introduce these bills that directly attack Virginia's lawfully present immigrants."
But Del. Jackson H. Miller (R-Manassas), who has introduced several of the bills, including one that calls for defendants to pay for language interpreters in court if convicted, said that legal immigrants are not being targeted.
"They're welcome. That is not what the issue is about," he said. "The issue is about the rule of law and fairness."
The number of immigration bills in the 60-day legislative session is the highest in recent years and, some lawmakers say, is more than the total addressing any other topic, including the abusive-driving fees and mental health reform.
House members have introduced more than 100 immigration bills; senators had filed about 25 as of Friday, the deadline for legislators to file bills for the season.
Republicans across the state, and some Democrats in conservative districts, seized on illegal immigration last year before the November election, announcing proposals to curb illegal immigration. Much of the debate was in Northern Virginia, including Prince William County, where officials are planning to curtail government services to illegal immigrants and increase enforcement.
"It's ground zero," said freshman Del. Paul F. Nichols (D-Prince William), who has introduced several immigration bills. "It was a hotbed issue. I got elected on a promise that I would dissuade illegal immigrants from coming into Prince William County. Illegal is illegal. If you're going to have laws, which we do, and you're not going to have enforcement of them, then you've got a failure."
But some House members say they know their efforts will be thwarted by the newly Democrat-controlled Senate and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who has said that immigration policy should be left largely to the federal government.
Senate Democrats list immigration as one of their six priorities for the legislative session, but Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said bills that are punitive will face a tough road in the Senate.
Last year, lawmakers proposed more than 50 bills dealing with immigration. Only seven were sent to Kaine for his signature. Many of the bills died in the Senate after being passed by the House, which was controlled by moderate Republicans who often collaborated with Democrats.
Because of the volume of immigration bills filed this year, each chamber is sending them to one committee to be examined for duplication. In the House, Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) created a subcommittee consisting of four Republicans and a Democrat. In the Senate, most of the bills are being sent to the Courts of Justice Committee.
Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, who represents several immigrant groups, including the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations, said the number of bills filed this year is surprising because many candidates who campaigned the loudest for sanctions against illegal immigrants did not win in November.
"If you look at the results of the election, it's hard to see the genesis of this attention," Gastanaga said. "For the majority of the electorate, this was not the most important issue, and yet it is going to take up more time in the session."
Only a handful of proposals offer immigrants help, including creating an office of immigration assistance, protecting immigrant crime victims and increasing the schools' funding formula based on the immigrant population.
House leaders say they will consider all bills but remain focused on the five priorities they outlined before the election: prohibiting illegal immigrants from attending public colleges, requiring sheriffs to check immigration status, suspending business licenses of companies that hire illegal immigrants, denying bail to illegal immigrants and ensuring that one person at every jail has federal authority to begin deportation proceedings.
But Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) said he hopes that House leaders will also consider other proposals.
"There are a lot of concerns we have to address," he said. "Nobody has a monopoly on these bills. There are multiple approaches. We're trying to use our imaginations."
Other bills that have been introduced call for home buyers to prove they are in the country legally to qualify for a mortgage, for police officers to have the authority to begin deportation proceedings, for students to show a valid birth certificate before entering public K-12 schools or college and to create a state agency to deal with illegal immigration. At least two bills would allow employers to fire workers for misconduct if they speak a language other than English at work.
Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of Supervisors, said he asked legislators to introduce proposals that would build more detention space and clarify a locality's authority to enforce immigration policies, among other issues.
"What we are concerned about most is public safety, not about lifestyle and cultural differences," said Stewart (R-At Large). "We need to focus the ball on removing illegal immigrants."
Of the 12 million illegal immigrants estimated to be in the United States, 250,000 to 300,000 live in Virginia, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington. An additional 440,000 people in Virginia are not U.S. citizens but are in the state legally, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax) said that some bills, including his, target not immigrants directly but the problems that can stem from an escalating immigrant population. He and other lawmakers have introduced bills to help localities combat single-family homes being used as boardinghouses.
"I'm not going to do anything that is going to have a negative effect on those people who are legal," he said.
In the past three years, as the federal government repeatedly failed to pass legislation regarding the nation's illegal immigrants, many states considered immigration bills that address employment, identification, law enforcement and public benefits.
Last year, more than 1,500 immigration bills were introduced in legislatures -- three times as many as in 2006. Only 244 were enacted.
Ann Morse, program director for the Immigrant Policy Project at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Washington, said states are limited in what they can do to curb illegal immigration.
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who leads the House Courts of Justice Committee and reviews immigration bills, said some bills will be impossible to implement because of legal or financial restrictions and lack of consensus among lawmakers. He said he has narrowed the list of proposals that he expects will pass this session.
But Angela M. Kelley, director of the Immigration Policy Center at the American Immigration Law Foundation in Washington, said: "It's just fantasy to think [any of these new laws] are going to drive people out. They will just go underground."